The more I talk with students of all ages, the more I realize that what is most important is not the grades they get, or their test scores, or the number of “advanced classes” they are enrolled in, or their supposed “I.Q.” level…
The two most important questions every student asks, whether consciously or unknowingly, are “Am I loved?” and “What are my talents?”
Meaningful relationships, whether with a friend, mentor, or family member are key to a person’s sense of well-being. Students will do almost anything to feel accepted in their school or community. Some students find satisfaction in familial or teacher approval, so they work hard to excel in their school classes. Some students fight against school authority to gain acceptance with the rebellious crowds. Of course, there are always students who are self-motivated, who find intrinsic value in gaining knowledge through studies in school (and outside school), yet these students also must feel that they have a supportive network behind them, even if it just a few friends. I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was accurate when it states that intimacy is second only to one’s safety and physiological needs. According to Maslow, feeling a sense of belonging in one’s personal world comes before the need for esteem or success in other areas such as school or work.
If a person does not feel loved, there is an empty hole in their lives that cannot be filled with academic excellence, a career, subversion, or anything else.
It would be impossible to remember how many times someone told me, “I don’t know what my special abilities are! Everyone seems talented for something except me. I feel so ordinary.” There are two main reasons that I see for this statement popping up so much. First, schools are not focused enough on helping students discover WHAT their talents are. This is mostly directed to public schools; if a student does not have a clearly defined proclivity for a school-related activity, then they will most likely be left on their own to figure out what they can do. Second, school has very narrow ideas of what exactly a “talent” is. The word talent is defined as “natural aptitude or skill”. The only skills that the typical school seems to value are those that involve academic intelligence in school-related subjects (especially mathematics or writing), the ability to score well on tests, and leadership abilities. Some schools also value excellence in athletics, or occasionally the arts, but they are few and far between; it seems that most schools are often more concerned with simply having an average orchestra/band and the token sports teams, not encouraging a student to strive for greatness in those areas.
But talent is so much more than that. I know many people who have poor school records, whether due to bad grades or other reasons, who are highly talented in other areas of life not associated with school. Think of all the things school does not teach, yet they are qualities that we value in the people around us: a sense of humor, compassion, generosity, wisdom, kindness, faith, gentleness, strength of character, the ability to care for a child, the knowledge necessary to surviving in the woods, the skills needed to tend a garden or build a boat or knit a sweater or bake a loaf of bread. There are many kinds of talents. Some are not seen as “useful” because they may not be marketable when it comes to a career. Our mistake, and the mistake of the education systems around the world, is attaching value to people based only on their talents that we think will bring employment or intellectual accomplishment.
Everyone, and I firmly believe this so I’ll say it again, EVERYONE has talents that when developed will allow them to feel affirmed, useful, and self-actualized. It is just a matter of discovering what those talents are. School is definitely not the only place to find your abilities. If you are involved in any kind of community, have a caring family, or a circle of friends, then you already have the resources necessary to ask for advice or experiment in order to find out what your talents are.
It is not wrong for schools to have a plan which will allow a student to find a career in the future. It is wise to plan practically. But once again, I am drawn back to the statement I have made in previous entries: if a school environment is not allowing the student to truly thrive, then we must find some other place for them where they can learn and grow according to their natural abilities.
Edit: Exactly two years later, I re-visited this post. My life has changed quite a bit. I have a daughter, Harmony, who is ten months old. But my opinion has not changed. Now, more than ever, I understand how important it is for my daughter to feel loved, to find out her talents, to experience community and support from her family and friends and mentors, to grow in character, begin to balance wisdom and knowledge, discover the best path of learning for her as an individual, and eventually gain independence as she steps out into the world.